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BACKGROUND: The hepatitis C virus (HCV) epidemic is a major health issue; in most developed countries it is driven by people who inject drugs (PWID). Injecting networks powerfully influence HCV transmission. In this paper we provide an overview of 10 years of research into injecting networks and HCV, culminating in a network-based approach to provision of direct-acting antiviral therapy.
METHODS: Between 2005 and 2010 we followed a cohort of 413 PWID, measuring HCV incidence, prevalence and injecting risk, including network-related factors. We developed an individual-based HCV transmission model, using it to simulate the spread of HCV through the empirical social network of PWID. In addition, we created an empirically grounded network model of injecting relationships using exponential random graph models (ERGMs), allowing simulation of realistic networks for investigating HCV treatment and intervention strategies. Our empirical work and modelling underpins the TAP Study, which is examining the feasibility of community-based treatment of PWID with DAAs.
RESULTS: We observed incidence rates of HCV primary infection and reinfection of 12.8 per 100 person-years (PY) (95%CI: 7.7-20.0) and 28.8 per 100 PY (95%CI: 15.0-55.4), respectively, and determined that HCV transmission clusters correlated with reported injecting relationships. Transmission modelling showed that the empirical network provided some protective effect, slowing HCV transmission compared to a fully connected, homogenous PWID population. Our ERGMs revealed that treating PWID and all their contacts was the most effective strategy and targeting treatment to infected PWID with the most contacts the least effective.
CONCLUSION: Networks-based approaches greatly increase understanding of HCV transmission and will inform the implementation of treatment as prevention using DAAs.
MH, EMc, RSD and JD acknowledge fellowship support from the National Health and Medical Research Council. PH is supported by a Curtin University Fellowship. The authors acknowledge the contribution to this work of support from the NHMRC (App– 331312 and App–1001144), the ARC (App DP0987730) and the Victorian Operational Infrastructure Support Program (Department of Health, Victoria, Australia) to the Burnet Institute.